What’s really going on in Boris’s head – and why I’d advise Rishi to sleep with one eye open
Boris Johnson has decided not to use the Government’s new northern ireland deal with the European Union as a pretext for mounting a challenge to rishi sunak. But that doesn’t mean he’s given up any hope of returning as Prime Minister. Far from it.
The retreat is purely tactical. he doesn’t like the deal, even saying this week it will be ‘very difficult’ for him to vote for it in the Commons. But he’s concluded there’s not a big enough head of steam against it on the Tory backbenches for him to lead a broadly-based rebellion. so our modern- day Cincinnatus will bide his time.
he’s already clear in his mind how he will judge the performance of the Government. he claims it has to be a ‘Brexit government — or it is nothing’. he insists it is still bound by the mandate he won by a landslide in December 2019 to get Brexit done.
Johnson thinks that can only be achieved if the Government ‘dares to diverge from, dares to be different to’ the EU. he criticises sunak for being far too timid on that score. he accepts that so was he when Prime Minister.
he accuses the Treasury of being especially insistent that Britain should stay faithful to EU rules even though we were no longer a member. he blames sunak, when he was his Chancellor, for being too inclined to go along with this Treasury orthodoxy.
Johnson still bears the scars of lost battles with sunak and the Treasury. ‘There is no point to Brexit if we merely emulate the high-tax, low-growth European economic model,’ he says.
But he thinks that’s what the sunak government is doing. he claims he tried to stop sunak’s desire to raise corporation tax, which will rise from 19 per cent to
25 per cent next month. And he acknowledges his failure.
in retrospect, he says, Britain should have erected a huge ‘invest here’ sign after the pandemic had receded, outdoing even the irish in business-friendly tax cuts. But he couldn’t get his way.
Clearly it’s easier to write newspaper columns about such matters than force them through the Whitehall machinery, even when you’re Prime Minister.
When taken to task about agreeing to the northern ireland protocol in the first place, he says he did so believing it would be sensibly applied. he admits he hadn’t taken enough account of the strategic mission of the European Commission which, he says, was to stop Britain from diverging from the rules of the EU single market.
northern ireland was the pawn in that game. Johnson says what the EU feared most of all was ‘singapore- on-Thames’, shorthand for a more free-market, less regulated economic model which would prove more successful and dynamic than Europe’s dirigiste economies.
That prospect terrified them, he says. so right from the start the Commission aimed to bind northern ireland completely into the EU single market, using the border with the irish republic, as the pretext. By tying one part of the UK into the single market, the Commission thought it would make it harder for the rest of the UK to diverge from EU rules without splitting the Union.
Johnson accepts that sunak’s deal is an improvement. But it amounts to no more than EU ‘easements’ (his word) on the rules. it still leaves northern ireland subject to some EU laws. he recognises people want to move on and make the best of the ‘Windsor Framework’, which is why he’s given up thoughts of leading a rebellion against it. But he still fears it will act as a ‘drag anchor on divergence’.
if that turns out to be the case, he thinks the Government should be prepared to resuscitate his controversial bill to allow Britain to make unilateral changes to the protocol.
There is clearly much room here for disagreement with the sunak government in the months ahead, plenty of scope for mischief. Johnson is staking out markers by which he intends to judge sunak’s performance and to create a springboard for a possible leadership challenge.
Time and again, he returns to his theme of ‘daring to diverge, daring to be different’ from the EU, in everything from the regulation of genome sequencing to financial services. he doesn’t think sunak has the stomach for it. if and when he mounts a rebellion, it will be on this basis.
The clear blue water Johnson sees between himself and the Government is not confined to Brexit. he thinks it has lost interest in his levelling-up agenda and intends to ‘bang on’ about it until sunak takes it seriously.
he still speaks passionately about the country being hopelessly tilted in favour of London and the south-East and claims that real levelling up would quickly make us the richest country in Europe.
Then there’s Ukraine. he intends to remain in the vanguard of calls for Ukraine to be supplied with the most sophisticated weaponry, including fighter jets.
‘We’ll do it in the end,’ he says, ‘so we might as well do it now.’
The obvious criticism of all this is to ask why he didn’t do more along these lines when he had the chance as prime minister.
of course, the pandemic drained his government of energy and purpose beyond dealing with the immediate health threat. But it is not unreasonable to suppose he could still have done more, given the scale of his majority. Even so, much of what he says will resonate strongly with the Tory faithful.
The Windsor Framework has given the Government a new lease of life, but there are still widespread fears that sunak is too tame, too technocratic. Johnson plans to be on the sidelines doling out plenty of red meat.
The sue Gray farrago aids his ambition to be the comeback kid. The appointment of this supposedly impartial senior civil servant to be Keir starmer’s chief of staff undermines the authority of her damaging report into Johnson’s Partygate imbroglio.
he and his supporters will now simply shrug it off, fairly or unfairly, as the work of a political partisan. it might even help him get through the looming parliamentary inquiry into Partygate.
i do not myself advocate that Johnson should challenge sunak. his analysis of Brexit’s failings are compelling and his claim that
Johnson still bears the scars of lost battles with Sunak
Expect a mounting chorus of criticism to come from him in the weeks ahead
He must make his move on the PM before the next election
there is no point to Brexit unless we ‘dare to diverge’ irrefutable. But however convincing the rhetoric, Johnson is always destined to disappoint those who put most faith in him. That is his track record.
What matters, however, is not what i think but the fact that Johnson wants a second chance at being Prime Minister — and will be pretty ruthless in its pursuit.
The window of opportunity, however, is narrow. he has to make his move between now and sometime before the next election. Johnson has neither the stomach nor the aptitude to be leader of the opposition for a full parliamentary term.
he knows that if sunak leads the Tories into the next election and Keir starmer wins a comfortable working majority (it doesn’t have to be a landslide) for five years then his comeback opportunity will be over, probably for ever.
so he must strike in good time before the election. i’m still not convinced that circumstances will conspire to make a challenge credible, never mind successful. But i am certain he is positioning himself for such a challenge should the right moment arise.
he feels he was cheated out of the premiership by lesser politicians for no good reason and deserves the top job back. Gray’s new appointment has reinforced that view.
Expect a mounting chorus of criticism of the Government to come from him in the weeks ahead. The groundwork is being laid, the search for a casus belli under way. i’m told rishi sunak is a light sleeper. With Johnson on manoeuvres i’d advise him, from now on, to sleep with one eye open.